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The Rockettes

By Darryl Kent Clark

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At the mention of their name, the Radio City Rockettes conjure up an image of an endless line of identically clad, smiling young women singing, dancing and, most importantly, kicking their way through dance phrases performed in relentless unison. They seem to be timeless and, simultaneously, on their own time line, as they were formed in an era when dancing in a chorus and being a chorus member was predominantly woman's work. It is very true that a group of male dancers performing technically challenging choreography provides a special thrill. But when the general performance-goer thinks of precision dancing that has been with us for more than a decade or two, the mind goes straight to the Rockettes.

As a group, the Rockettes were born in 1925 in St. Louis, Missouri. They were the brainchild of a dance director by the name of Russell Markert. Markert found his way to the dance world like many other men of his generation. Born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1899, he first heard American-style dance music played live at a beachside resort in his home state. As a young child, he was immediately aware of the strong relationship between dance and music on an instinctive level, dancing around the house at the sound of a familiar song, but he would not be able to train formally until he was in his early twenties. After receiving training in tap, acrobatics, and ballet from a Brooklyn-based teacher by the name of Thelma Entwhistle, Markert began to formulate his ideas about dance entertainment. These ideas were fueled by the precision dance troupes of the late 19th century that came out of Great Britain.

Of these troupes, the most famous were the Tiller Girls, directed by their namesake John Tiller.

According to Richard Kislan, John Tiller was not a dance director or a teacher even; he was a manufacturer. He picked the girls early (they were pre-teenaged mostly) to begin training in the precision style that would make him world famous. The actual development of technique and choreography was left to his wife and her able assistants. The Tiller Girls performed extensively throughout the world and returned to New York City in 1922 at the invitation of famed showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. When Markert saw them, he was inspired to form a troupe of dancing girls that “would be taller and have longer legs and could do really complicated tap routines and eye-high kicks... ”(www.ibdb.com), and that would put the Tiller troupe to shame. Once he formed his group, he named them the Missouri Rockets and they began their performance career. Their initial performances are unrecorded; however, the Markert girls were the featured dancers in the 1930 Universal Pictures extravaganza, The King of Jazz.

The King of Jazz was an attempt to ride the crest of the wave created by the film musical genre. This genre had received a huge shot in the arm when the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed its Best Picture award on the 1929 film musical, The Broadway Melody. Technological advances in synchronizing the moving image with sound helped in creating a demand for film musicals that every Hollywood studio rushed to fill. Carl Laemmle, Universal's chief of production contracted impresario John Murray Anderson and renowned bandleader Paul Whiteman to create a fanciful biography of the birth of jazz music. Markert and his girls supplied background for the many production numbers that comprised this hybrid of elements drawn from the revue shows that were so popular at the time. Though Markert had performed on Broadway (with the Earl Carroll Vanities) before becoming a dance director, he was not seen in the film; his sixteen dancers embodied his passion for symmetrically matched, technically versatile dancers performing a variety of dance styles. The resulting numbers in the film that show the Markert Girls (they were not billed as the Missouri Rockets in the film) at their best include their marvelously thundering tap break-down to the popular tune ”Happy Feet” (which was reprised for the film’s final number, ”Song of the Dawn”), their opening precision routine that introduced them to the audience, and “My Bridal Veil,” in which they carry a veil for singing bride Jeanette Loff that is easily the size of a football field.  Markert's work on these numbers would eventually serve as inspiration to another famed director-choreographer named Tommy Tune. It is very difficult not to see similarities between these production numbers and Tune's award-winning The Will Rogers Follies.

Two years after the release of The King of Jazz, Samuel Rothafael, known to all as “Roxy,” invited Markert and the Missouri Rockets to perform at the opening of his Radio City Music Hall. Rothafael renamed the troupe of dancers, initially calling them the Roxyettes. This would be shortened to the Rockettes. Five years later, the Rockettes represented the United States at a worldwide dance company competition in Paris, France, and captured the grand prize. And in 1938, the group was also immortalized (for the first of many times) in a Broadway musical. The Rodgers and Hart show I Married An Angel featured a clever, humorous number titled “At the Roxy Music Hall”; its climax featured the performers Vivienne Segal and Audrey Christie as the entire line of Rockettes, kicking their way through the choreography of Rockettes admirer George Balanchine.

Once the Rockettes were secure in their home at Radio City as well as in American popular culture, they began their famed four-shows-a-day performance schedule. In order to meet the demands of this schedule, the troupe began to grow. By the mid-1960s, the troupe had doubled from its original sixteen to thirty-four and its list of alumna included Vera-Ellen, Lucile Bremer, Suzanne Kaaren, Jane Sherman, and Joan McCracken. Markert maintained a close relationship to the Rockettes throughout this time. He continued to oversee the audition and casting process and continued to require that members of the troupe be well-trained and versatile in the art of dance. The Rockettes were also autonomous in their own right. In 1967, they were led in a strike against the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) by actress/dancer Penny Singleton (of the Blondie film series of the 1930s and 1940s and The Jetsons) and received improvements to their working conditions as a result of their actions. The Rockettes also began to diversify in the 1980s, accepting Asian dancer Setsuko Maruhasi into the troupe in 1985 and African-American dancer Jennifer Jones in 1988.

In addition to performances at Radio City during the Christmas holiday season, the Rockettes can also be seen at venues as varied as a presidential inauguration, half-time at football games and in other cities such as Chicago; Branson, Missouri; and Toronto. So, while there is more than just one place to be a Rockette, the standards set in place by Russell Markert remain high to this day. Recently, the troupe has found a way to train dancers to that level that shares a common bond with John Tiller. The Rockettes host a summer intensive in New York for young, hopeful dancers. Female students as young as fourteen can be placed in a rigorous training program that features choreography and repertory, and each class in the six-hour day is led by former Rockette dancers and choreographers. These intensives last a week and there are, according to their official website, a total of seven that culminate in a final showcase performance. The odds of eventually going on the line at Radio City are fair: the intensives have produced forty-seven dancers who have been placed on the Rockettes line.

As the Rockettes move in perfect synchronicity toward their ninetieth birthday, they show that the dream of an American-born and based precision dance troupe that Russell Markert had in 1925 was definitely worth having. The legacy of performers who have been a part of Markert's dream reaches in to the worlds of film, musical theater and concert dance and will continue to do so for quite some time. Finally, the former Rockettes who share their lived experiences through the intensives ensure that audiences hungering for the clean, precise combination of grace and athleticism will never go unsatisfied, for they are teaching and training the Rockettes of the future.


 

Darryl Kent Clark, BA, Columbia College, MFA, SUNY College at Brockport, is a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He debuted as a dancer in Chicago in 1981, where he danced in the works of many nationally known choreographers. His interests as a performing artist expanded to include work as a dancer with Princess Cruises, Vee Corporation, film work with choreographers Otis Sallid, Neisha Folkes and Quinnie Sacks and work as an actor with First Folio Shakespeare Festival of Oak Brook IL, Rochester, NY’s Geva Theater, Chicago’s Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theater and Pegasus Players, to name a few. Mr. Clark is also an emerging choreographer, with favorable reviews of his works in Dance Magazine and the recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council and the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. He has also been of the faculty of many dance studios in the USA and has been a featured teacher of jazz, tap and modern dance at many studios and universities in the USA and the Netherlands. Mr. Clark is currently Assistant Professor, Dance, at Missouri State University.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

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Barrios, Richard. A Song in the Dark: the Birth of the Musical. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, c. 1995.

Hill, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, c. 2010.

Kislan, Richard. Hoofing on Broadway: A History of Show Dancing. New York: Prentice Hall Press, c. 1987.

Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Musical. New York: St. Martin's Press, c. 1981.

Parker, Derek and Julia. The Natural History of the Chorus Girl. New York and Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, Inc., c. 1975.

Reynolds, Nancy and McCormck, Malcolm. No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c. 2003.

Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan Press, c. 1968.

Moving Image

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The King of Jazz, Universal Pictures/MCA Home Video, 1930.